Guard against real traps in virtual world
The huge price society has paid for a fabricated story that went viral during the just-concluded Spring Festival, which sparked heated debates online and offline, highlights the need to reflect on how we should use cyberspace. In the story that was first posted on a local online forum, a 28-year-old woman, who claimed to be from a well-off family in Shanghai, split up with her boyfriend after being served dinner on the eve of Spring Festival at his family home in a small village in Central China’s Jiangxi province because she abhorred their poverty. The woman also posted a photograph of her boyfriend’s home which showed the humble dwelling, chopsticks of uneven length lying on an old, moldy wooden table, and meat and fish preparations in old steel plates. Such dishes were served the same way by poor families to “honored” guests in the years gone by.
Given that the woman chose to split up with her boyfriend on a special occasion and venue — during Spring Festival at her boyfriend’s home — seems to confirm an old Chinese saying that marriages should be based on two families’ social and economic status. The story instantly tickled public nerves and caused many to circulate it via social media without questioning its authenticity.
But the fierce war of words subsided after a report by the Jiangxi provincial cyberspace watchdog said the story was fake— a non-Shanghai mother who had never been to Jiangxi had posted the story in anger after quarrelling with her husband over where they should spend the Spring Festival holiday.
The huge price the society, including the media, has paid for circulating and debating over the concocted story has made it necessary for all citizens to self-reflect on their behavior in the era of the Internet. Its adverse effects on public psychology have raised a question on the reliability of circulated information in cyberspace.
Perhaps the story was reposted with such alacrity and speed by netizens and then picked up by print media outlets because it involved a sensitive topic: the social and monetary gaps between urban and rural areas. Despite China’s tangible economic and social development, the still wide rich-poor divide, especially the urban-rural gap, added spice to the story.
But netizens should not use the excuse of “spicy story” to absolve themselves of the wrongdoing of reposting it without checking the facts. Even if non-professional social media users can be forgiven for joining the debate without determining the story’s authenticity, the lack of basic vigilance by professional media outlets in reporting and commenting on the story calls for self-reflection. The professional media should take the case as a profound lesson on how to choose stories from a sea of information in the era of the Internet. This poses a challenge to the traditional media, but at the same time it provides the professional media the opportunity to raise their reliability and competitiveness.
For Internet users, the reposting of unauthenticated and “irresponsible” stories may not be illegal— and no netizen has been held accountable— but such acts do constitute an “abuse” of the Internet and cause a lot of damage to the credibility of cyberspace. The “story of the Shanghai woman” case once again shows that individual netizens should have basic integrity, if not legal consciousness, which will help them to post or repost only authenticated information.
China has the world’s highest number of Internet users and their number is growing. The Internet has indeed made communication easy, but it has also led to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. As such, the Internet should not be considered a realm free of self-restraints. While freely roaming in the virtual world, netizens should guard against the abuse of the Internet, in order to clean cyberspace of the false stories and information.
The author is a senior writer with China Daily.